Hammer Time: How West Ham United Shocked The EPL
For all but three of the last 27 EPL seasons, West Ham have been in an ever-reliable fixture in England’s top flight.
While granted, they don’t usually have a heap to say for themselves once there, with 16 of those 24 campaigns resulting in a bottom-ten finish, there’s something to be said for the guy who just keeps turning up, even if he doesn’t always get that much done.
Yet a remarkably different, extremely efficient West Ham has shown up at the office this season, and one who rather than hide at the back of team meetings has stepped forward and aggressively taken possession of the white board.
So far, West Ham's rise to 4th on the EPL table has constituted one of the shocks of the season, and what’s more surprising is that the East Londoner's have done so by doing absolutely nothing by way of tactical innovation.
For starters, the Hammers have laughed in the face of possession football. They in fact very rarely have the ball, and when they do, they do precious little with it. They rank in the bottom-five in both ball possession and pass accuracy, while the passes they do employ are inevitably long, and not particularly pretty.
Yet something the Hammers have embraced under David Moyes’ second spell with the club is the old, endangered, extremely English notion of getting the ball into the mixer and seeing what happens once there.
This season they’ve sent in the league’s second most crosses, whipping in 21 per game which is a figure topped only by Liverpool. And they're sending in so many crosses safe in the knowledge their 20.3 aerial wins per contest in the league's third best number, ultimately resulting in 15% of their shots arriving within the 6-yard box- the EPL's healthiest figure.
For West Ham, it's a game-plan low on style points, but which maximises the skill-sets of the likes of Michail Antonio and Sebastian Haller who’ve already combined for 10 goals this season, while also facilitating a more prominent role for a player like Jesse Lingard whose 0.82 goals and assists per-90 minutes is at a career high.
And while so much of West Ham’s attack is somewhat laboured and unlikely to be backed by an orchestral-led montage of highlights, it’s one that’s been strikingly efficient, turning 0.34 of their shots on target into goals which is the EPL's strongest return along with Everton and City.
Intriguingly, West Ham’s lack of offensive nuance is being mirrored by their defensive approach as well.
In the same way the club has recoiled at the concept of ball retention, the Hammers have been just as reticent implementing anything 'new-age' such as pressing, with the club ranked dead last, and by some distance too, when it comes to tackles executed in the opposition’s front third.
Yet for a club who's comfortable giving the opposition plenty of possession, and who doesn't feel as though they need to hunt like wolves to win it back, they're doing a remarkable job of limiting damage.
Chiefly, it's in the centre of the park where they've been most resolute with the likes of Declan Rice and this remarkable Tomas Soucek campaign leading the way. The duo have combined to enact 776 pressure acts on the opposition this season, with both holding individual top-ten ranks in that stat. West Ham have in fact broken up 33.7% of opposition dribble attempts (ranked 3rd) which has forced rivals wide in order to generate shot opportunities.
This season, West Ham opponents have had to call upon 357 crosses which is the league's third-highest figure, while the average distance of opposition shot against West Ham is 17.5 yards which is ranked 4th behind only Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool and testament to how stubborn and organised the Hammer's rear-guard is.
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As to whether this remarkable campaign is sustainable is another matter entirely. They've played a combined five matches this season against Liverpool and the two Manchester teams, with just a draw and four losses to show for their efforts.
Yet in a season where Liverpool have struggled, Tottenham have floundered and Arsenal are battling to even stay in the top-ten, then perhaps there is a place for a fairy-tale run.
While no, West Ham's success has been anything but a celebration of tactical progression, and while David Moyes is highly unlikely to ever share a stage with Klopp or Guardiola to discuss strategy, his Hammers have uncovered a different kind of cool, and one that suits his club to a tee.
Unlike so many, West Ham understand precisely who they are and they make no pretensions about it.
In an era of global behemoths gobbling up the little guys, West Ham's rise to towards the top is a brilliant story, and one which many other cash-strapped clubs stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity could think about borrowing from.
No, their style doesn't make for intoxicating, appointment viewing for neutrals, but for their fans, it's been a deliriously exciting few months, and if it can be sustained, might just secure their club a place in Europe.